In the face of trying financial times for bands and gig-bookers alike, the fact that Damnation Festival still pulled off another sell-out edition is both impressive and heartening. Despite their own admissions about a couple of missed opportunities this year, Damnation always manage to bring an unmissable line-up that caters for a wide fan base, be it lovers of Extreme or the more Progressive, and once more they have done so with love and more than a few surprise additions!
To newcomers, the almost labyrinthian layout does appear confusing at first glance, and for some unaware veterans, there is the renaming of a couple of stages that requires a couple of confirming glances to be sure. Other than the need for some advance planning to make sure you can get into stages in the event of crowding, Damnation is always a smooth experience.
Kicking off the Eyesore Merch Stage in a fairly mellow fashion is Progressive Metallers VOLA who arrive off the back of huge levels of acclaim following the recent release Applause Of A Distant Crowd (Mascot), from which most of the set consists. Firmly displaying the diversity across the album, this is a vibrant and rich performance which veers from bouncy Djent with the likes of ‘Smartfriend’, to the massive and euphoric ‘Ghosts’; proving the perfect tonic to begin the day and leaving everyone with smiles firmly on their faces.
The joy of Damnation is in its diversity, as next is returning Grindcore heroes Fukpig – definitely a change of pace as they pack out and crush the Tone MGMT at this early stage, showing just how missed they were. Their latest album, the self-released Bastards shows they haven’t missed a step or lost any of their bite and today’s performance is filled with as much bile as it does a twisted sense of humour, ‘Dogshit Hair’ being a case in point. This is all about a barrage of noise and pure filth with as much Grind as there is Crust Punk. It is over all too quickly. Welcome back you glorious bastards.
With the well-deserved love affair Holy Roar have had this year in particular with releases, Møl hadn’t seemed to have gotten received the same level of attention as others. At least that’s what it felt before they packed out the basement Cult Never Dies stage whilst clashing with returning Death Metal legends Cancer on the main stage. On stunning form throughout their set, with ‘Ligament’ in particular proving both visceral and cathartic, sadly, the now seemingly annual Damnation fire alarm strikes again cutting off their performance early, but even that can’t detract from witnessing what felt like an important moment for one of the best up and coming Extreme Metal bands currently.
Any fear of a fire alarm and subsequent evacuation killing momentum are soon quashed within moments of Swedish Death Metallers Lik making their appearance on the Tone MGMT. Their brand of the familiar HM-2/Old School formula packs few real surprises but packs such a weighty punch throughout their set. Equal parts gritty as it is sheer fun, it is clear the members on stage are having just as much fun as the packed out throng before them.
Aussie Progressive Death Metal favourites Ne Obliviscaris are this scribes’ first foray to the Jägermeister/Main Stage, and they’ve clearly come with a lot of fans as a rabid response would suggest. Sadly, their performance is at best, calculated omitting the heart and emotive streak their music has shown to possess, particularly on latest album Urn (Season Of Mist). Even worse is that poor sound issues mean that only the drums and clean vocals (and occasionally violin) seem to be coming through clearly, meaning all the intricacy and technicality of their sound is completely inaudible and wasted.
That disappointment is quickly forgotten about within moments of Brummie Extreme legends Anaal Nathrakh taking to the same stage. With a dense sound that packs in dark Industrial alongside the likes of Black Metal and Grindcore, their performance is one that is utterly vicious and yet strikingly poignant at times, especially in these turbulent and chaotic days. As vocalist Dave Hunt notions a song dedication to a lost friend that leaves a lump in the throat, the emotion is reciprocated by the intensity of new song ‘Forward’, which has seemingly already morphed into a setlist staple. Predominantly focused on their recent albums, particularly latest effort A New Kind Of Horror (Metal Blade) alongside cult classics like ‘In The Constellation Of The Black Widow’, this is a triumphant display which shows not only is their fire burning as hard as ever, but that they are still as consistent on the album front.
French mentalists Celeste are a hypnotic and unnerving prospect back at the Tone MGMT stage, which is, once again, packed out. Shrouded in pure darkness aside from headset LEDs, their brand of twisted Black Metal is an almost indescribable experience as it is equally punishing and entrancing. Whilst the members themselves are mostly static on stage, their performance and shadowed presence means the music itself is the pure vocal point, and one that needs to be seen for yourself when they roll back around again.
Despite their claim that they stick out on this festival line-up like a sore thumb, Djent veterans Monuments have a rabid fanbase here today with the Eyesore Merch stage (the unofficial “Proggy” stage) almost filled to capacity. With a setlist mostly comprised from latest album Phronesis (Century Media), which hasn’t been out long at this point, it is these songs that seem to get the biggest response and are clearly amongst the best in the band’s arsenal. Frontman Chris Barretto is both a showman and a dynamic vocalist who not once loses that Cheshire Cat grin. With the likes of ‘Mirror Image’ and ‘Leviathan’ already being massive anthems for them, this is a triumphant performance to witness, along with being a little warming, and gets a response the members on stage are clearly taken aback by throughout, as even a Slipknot style ‘get everyone down on the ground, then jump’ special taking the whole room by storm.
What comes next is a special trio of performances that collectively show exactly why this festival is so special to the UK underground metal scene. Firstly, the iconic Ihsahn on the Jagermeister stage delivers a mesmerising display that matches up varied dynamics, intense aggression, and assassin-like precision throughout. Opening with the Ámr (Candlelight) brace of ‘Lend Me The Eyes Of Millenia’ and ‘Arcana Imperii’, which relish in being his most accessible yet intense material, before unleashing into the sophisticated yet furious ‘The Paranoid’, this is a jaw-dropping display in which the band throughout never hits less than inhuman accuracy throughout. This is a captivating and wealthy display which shows exactly why this man is revered so highly in Metal circles.
In similar fashion, The Ocean close out the Tone MGMT with what may go down as one of the stage’s all-time great performances. There are irritations with loud pockets in the crowd during the opening quiet moments, but luckily these quickly vanish once ‘Cambrian II’ explodes into full effect. Their post-Metal barrage and the smoke-shroud around them suggests a disconnect, yet the emotive force in their sound makes this an incredibly moving display in so many ways. Moving through motions, tones and flows much like the giant body their music focuses on, this is a mammoth and truly special moment which has the crowd fixated.
Finally, it is up to the all-time greats Napalm Death to close out the day on the main stage, and by now there is little that hasn’t been said about a performance of theirs that you probably haven’t heard already, but, in these times of political and social strife and uncertainty, their music and this day’s performance are as vital and life-affirming as ever. The fact that the newer cuts like ‘As The Years Condemn’ sound as timeless as the likes of ‘Suffer The Children’ show just how special this band is, and their unrelenting energy, particularly of the frantic Barney Greenway is a timely reminder of just why this band is so important.
With stage banter that is equal parts witty and cutting toward the state of the world, this performance is a timely reminder of just why this kind of music is so important us all, a reminder to treat others with kindness and love and to make a difference. Today, Napalm Death are expectedly brutal as they are motivational and provide is a snapshot of not only why this band is the greatest extreme act ever to appear from the UK, but why Damnation is such an important day in our calendar.
With the promise of a big name headliner already on the cards, there really is no excuse as to why you shouldn’t be down the front the same time next year.